With the return to campus back in full swing, many Varsity Blues athletes have also made their homecoming back to the University of Toronto.
Recently, Josh Nikolic, wide receiver, and Mojtaba (Junior) Mehry, offensive lineman for Varsity Blues football, sat down with The Varsity to talk about their return to Varsity football after an almost two year hiatus due to the pandemic.
Nikolic is majoring in political science and history, while Mehry graduated with a double major in environmental studies and forest conservation and a minor in environmental geography, but he has come back to the Varsity Blues to continue playing football.
Mehry was recently signed by the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts and attended an Argonauts training camp, but returned to the Blues for their training camp in early September. Both Nikolic and Mehry have been playing for the Blues since their first year at the University of Toronto.
A bounce back
“I was excited,” Nikolic said in an interview with The Varsity. “After two years of not being able to see each other in practice, it was just like overwhelming joy… It’s good to be back.”
“It [wasn’t] an easy transition,” Mehry said, but he added that he enjoyed seeing all of his teammates again.
After the pandemic first hit, Mehry said he was “already starting to accept that [he] was out of football,” but being invited to the Argos’ training camp “brought [his] love back to the game.”
Both players have been playing football for approximately a decade.
Nikolic said that a lot of the team are from all over Canada, so it was hard to keep in touch with everyone over the course of the pandemic. But once they all returned for training, he said, everything felt normal again. “[It’s] like we didn’t miss a beat [and] the last two years really didn’t happen… the boys are back in town.”
Despite having many returning players, the Varsity Blues are also handling two years’ worth of new recruits. Because of the pandemic, the Varsity Blues did not hold a training camp last year, and so many players who were in first year missed the opportunity to attend training camp.
“They’re making the best of it,” Nikolic said. “They’re all right, taking their opportunities and doing the best they can.”
Nikolic added that he’s happy to see how passionate the new recruits are about the sport.
Changes due to COVID-19
Because of the ongoing pandemic, the Varsity Blues training camp, which used to begin on August 14 in a “normal” year, began instead on September 3.
Despite the fact that all players on the team are required to be fully vaccinated, the team has to do a COVID-19 screening test everyday before entering any facilities. The team still has to follow regular COVID-19 protocols as well, like physical distancing and wearing masks when indoors.
Because the team is so large, Nikolic said that “[players] have to take shifts when it comes to our locker and procedures, [and] when it comes to meeting… in all common and open spaces.”
The football season has been shortened to include six games instead of the usual eight. Nikolic and Mehry said that they aren’t upset about the shortened season, but are instead glad to have the chance to play at all.
In addition, Varsity football teams have been broken up into East and West divisions. The Varsity Blues will only play teams in the East division during the regular season, including Queens, Carleton, York, and Guelph.
Some of the pandemic changes include teams not staying overnight for away games, which was a common thing to do pre-pandemic. “We have one [away game] later in the season… We don’t do overnight anymore. It’s more of like you show up day of, play the game, and then you go home,” said Mehry.
Mehry said that teams don’t normally play as well right after the long bus ride to an away game. As a solution, they’re looking at doing extra workouts and warmups to prepare for playing right before away games.
The upcoming season
Mehry and Nikolic didn’t question the fact that they had to get the COVID-19 vaccine in order to continue to play, but, due to privacy reasons, are unsure if any other players questioned the requirement. “As long as we get to play, that’s all that matters to me,” Mehry said.
“It’s been 700 days since our last football game,” said Nikolic, referencing a recent Instagram post from @varsitybluesfootball welcoming back football fans to the stadium. The Blues kicked off their season on September 18 at home with a win against the Ottawa Gee-Gees. The final score was 11–10.
“We’re excited to play the sport we love [and] we’re excited to be representing U of T in the Varsity Blues community,” said Nikolic.